Home As Facial Recognition Improves, New Privacy Controversies Await

As Facial Recognition Improves, New Privacy Controversies Await

If you think recently-unveiled products like the Facebook Timeline and Amazon’s cloud-powered Silk Web browser have raised privacy issues, an innovation that lies just around the corner could blow them both out of the water.

Facial recognition technology has been around for decades, but until recently it’s been slow, inefficient and largely limited to proprietary implementations, such as databases used by law enforcement. That could all be about to change, and the results are bound to send shivers down the spines of digital privacy advocates.

PittPatt, software developed at Carnegie Mellon University (and now owned by Google), is just one example of software that can quickly identify individuals in a photograph, matching their likeness with other images of them found online and then scouring the Web for other information about the person.

“With Carnegie Mellon’s cloud-centric new mobile app, the process of matching a casual snapshot with a person’s online identity takes less than a minute,” writes Jared Keller in The Atlantic. “Tools like PittPatt and other cloud-based facial recognition services rely on finding publicly available pictures of you online, whether it’s a profile image for social networks like Facebook and Google Plus or from something more official from a company website or a college athletic portrait.”

As incredible as some of the potential uses this technology has may be, the futuristic possibilities are largely overshadowed by the privacy implications raised by the widespread availability of point-and-shoot facial recognition. For every auto-tagged friend and identified criminal, there is inevitably a pervert and a ruthless despot bent on punishing protestors.

Google is well aware of the risks. Even before acquiring PittPatt, it had developed its own powerful facial recognition internally, but has declined to bake it into any publicly-released applications like Google Goggles because of these privacy concerns. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has said that the privacy implications raised by facial recognition are “very concerning” and that the company would not likely lead any effort to popularize it in consumer mobile apps. Even so, third party developers haven’t been deterred from working the controversial technology into Android apps.

Apple and Facebook Join the Facial Recognition Game (Carefully)

On Facebook, some users were disturbed when they first saw the social network’s own implementation of facial recognition. Upon uploading an image of friends, Facebook will automatically identify people in the photograph and ask users if they’d like to tag them accordingly. The feature, which was made available globally this summer, allows users to opt out via their privacy settings.

Apple made clear that it intends to let the iPhone recognizes faces one way or another when it acquired a company called Polar Rose in 2010. While it has declined to integrate the technology into iOS directly, Apple has made facial recognition features available to developers in new APIs for iOS 5. On example of how this might be used is RecognizeMe, an app for jailbroken iPhones that unlocks the device by scanning and recognizing the owner’s face.

Just because titans like Google and Apple have declined to roll mobile facial recognition out in a way that would allow the technology to be easily abused, that doesn’t mean somebody else won’t. As long as the tech exists and continues to improve, it may only be a matter of time before it’s available on a smartphone near you.

What do you think about mobile facial recognition? Creepy or cutting edge? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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